a) the arrival of Europeans with their slaves and their Christianity (the native Taino, who inhabited the island before 1492, were virtually annihilated by Spanish settlers within twenty-five years)?
b) the departure of the Europeans (Haiti was the world’s first republic to be led by a “black” man; the French left in the early 19th century, kicked out after a slave rebellion in 1804)?
c) the endless repetition of dictatorship (so many, far too many to list)?
d) the tendency to get in the way of hurricanes and earthquakes (the earthquake in January 2012, the worst in this region in the last two hundred years, was measured at 7.0 on the Richter scale; its epicenter was about 15 miles west of the capital, Port-au-Prince; it is estimated that about 300,000 people were killed and another 1.5 million left homeless)?
e) the Duvalier family?
f) a combination of all the above?
If you are planning to go on holiday in Haiti, remember to take a sleeping bag and tent, as this is where you will be staying. Medical supplies in your luggage will also be appreciated, and even cash – the billions promised by the world’s rich nations while the media was still focused on the issue have simply not materialised now that the media has stopped focusing on the issue (Ebola is more important than poverty in Haiti for the simple reason that poverty in Haiti is neither infectious nor contagious, whereas Ebola may be both; wealthy countries do not allow Ebola to enter at their ports, and quarantine in deportation centres any who might be carrying the disease; those with mere poverty are still free to enter).
Of all of Haiti's rather too many "interesting" historical characters, François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture, also known as Toussaint L'Ouverture, Toussaint-Louverture, Toussaint Bréda, and even The Black Napoleon, merits a paragraph or two, for leading the only successful slave revolt in modern history.
Toussaint grew up on Santo Domingo, where he was fortunate to have a liberal slave-master, who trained him as a house-servant rather than a field-worker, and included literacy in the curriculum. Toussaint read the various Enlightenment philosophers, in particular Rousseau, who were campaigning, not in fact for the abolition of slavery, but at least for an extension of the "Rights of Man" to include slaves. How exactly one makes that distinction is not the subject of this essay; I would suggest that it may have been rather more of a strategy towards abolition than a semantic distinction, and for a brief moment it was successful. Very brief. In 1791 the plantation owners fought back, and the measure was withdrawn. This led the slaves to cry treason, and rebel, first against the French, then the British, finally the Spanish, who took turns at theoretically putting down the rebellion; in fact, in the case of the latter two, simply trying to take advantage of the defeats suffered by their predecessors. Toussaint was the leader of the rebels, and his skills as an untrained military general were repeatedly made manifest. When, in 1793, the Jacobins under Robespierre took power in revolutionary France, slavery was abolished altogether, and Toussaint appointed to lead the French attacks against the British and Spanish on Hispaniola, to liberate the slaves there too. Seven separate battles in seven days left him as governor of the colony.
Then the Jacobins fell, and Napoleon took power in France. Extraordinarily, given that he was responsible for the "Edicts of Tolerance" which tore down the walls of the ghettos and liberated most of Europe, at least until he had established his dictatorship completely, Napoleon repealed the abolition laws, reinstating slavery, and sent a navy to Haiti to enforce it. Toussaint sued for peace, and agreed to retire from public life in exchange for Haitian independence, which Napoleon granted, but only because trickery was the easiest way to defeat Toussain, reclaim Haiti, and strengthen his own position, the only position that ultimately he cared about.
In 1803 Toussaint was invited to France to complete the independence discussions. No sooner had he arrived than his safe conduct documents were torn up in his face, and himself arrested and thrown into a dungeon at Fort de Joux in the Jura mountains, where cold and starvation did not take long to kill him. A cruel and pointless death in any circumstances, but worse still when you learn that, six months later, Napoleon changed his mind about the Caribbean because matters in Europe required total concentration, and it was much simpler just to abandon the region, sell every remaining piece of territory in North America to the United States (the so-called Louisiana Purchase), and grant Haiti its independence after all.
Part of the reason why the aid money has not arrived is the politics of Haiti itself, which operated a kind of Voodoo Socialism for thirty years at the end of the last century, under the shaman Papa Doc Duvalier and then his son baby-Doc. The usual calumnies, with tens of thousands disappearing, babies routinely eaten for breakfast, etc. After they went there was a period of pretend democracy, but the army, as so often in the world, couldn’t resist seizing power (when you have no external enemy to fight, soldiering is dull, so you have to turn on your own people), couping Jean-Bertrand Aristide not once but twice. Some states are failed states; Haiti is sadly an example of failed humanity, and that is not a slur against Haitians; most of the failed humanity takes place elsewhere in the world, by wilfully ignoring the dire needs of this benighted place.
(Finally, I would just like to give a little plug to Tap-Tap, my favourite restaurant in South Beach, Miami. On 5th street, between Meridian and Jefferson – Haitian cuisine and live music Thursdays and Saturdays).
Marks For: As many as you can send, plus Euros, Dollars, any currency will do.
Marks Against: This is not the time to be counting up the negatives. The relief fund is still open. Click here
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